Published on November 4th, 2019 | by Randy Weeks0
The View from the Balcony: Bigotry: The Shame and the Stain that Remain
On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Ms. Parks’ courage was motivated by several racist events, especially the kidnapping, torture, and murder of a 14-year-old black child, Emmett Till, by two white men in the Mississippi Delta on August 28, 1955.
Fast-forward to March 1, 2019, when a picture was posted on social media of three gun-totin’ Ole Miss fraternity brothers, smiling like a possum eating grapes, while posed around the bullet-riddled historical marker at the spot on the Tallahatchie River where Emmett Till’s body was likely pulled out.
The sign had been desecrated by gunfire and replaced before, but this was the first time there was a strong indication of who did the shooting. We still don’t know for certain that the frat brats did the dastardly deed, but the evidence is pretty damning. At the very least they are guilty of stupidity.
On October 19, about 100 people, including relatives of Till, dedicated a new, bullet-proof sign at the site. The weather was beautiful and the air electric as we stood between a cotton field and a river. The sense of reverence was palpable as Reverend Wheeler Parker, Emmett’s cousin who was with Emmett when he was kidnapped, spoke. No words of hate were said—only words of sadness, perplexity, hope, determination, and love.
It goes without saying that Mississippi has a dark past when it comes to racial issues. Sadly, we are climbing out of the putrid sewer of prejudice much too slowly. In fact, we may be slipping backwards.
In spite of the groundbreaking and noble work of people at the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, the Mississippi Center for Justice, Mission Mississippi, investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, Stennis Flag creator Laurin Stennis, and others, we still have a Leiutenant Governor and gubernatorial candidate who, in 2013, spoke to the Sons of Confederate Veterans National Reunion in Vicksburg, Mississippi, from a dais festooned with Confederate flags and a huge one hanging behind him. (A friend of mine suggested that his campaign slogan ought to read, “Tate Reeves: The Future Stops Here”.)
Whenever a story about prejudice or injustice is in the media I cringe. When I hear that the incident took place somewhere other than Mississippi, I give a sigh of relief and think, “At least it didn’t happen here.” I have friends from out of state who rarely, if ever, come here because they’ve been on the receiving end of prejudicial actions in Mississippi due to others’ bigotry toward their gender, religion, sexual orientation, and/or racial makeup—recently. Folks, we cannot afford to keep doing this. Not only does bigotry perpetuate a horrible public image, but it’s wrong; it’s just plain wrong.
In 1978, between college and graduate school, I worked temporarily for a small church in Mississippi. A young lady was to be married there and planned to invite the woman who had been her family’s maid and had practically raised the girl. The problem? The church was made up of only white people and the woman was black. I sat in a deacon’s meeting and heard men who called themselves Christian say things like, “I work with ‘em every day, my kids go to school with ‘em, but I’m not gonna go to church with ‘em!” The pastor cowered and took no stand. I was silent. After all, I was only going to be there six months. The deacons voted that blacks were not to enter the sanctuary of their church unless it was to clean it. I kid you not.
I left that meeting dumbfounded and ashamed, and I vowed that if I were ever in a situation in which such racist venom was being spewed, I would not keep my mouth shut. I am thankful to be able to say that I have kept that vow.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” Being non-bigoted is great, but it’s not enough. For such prejudice and injustice to be obliterated from the face of the earth we must be anti-bigoted. We must be proactive in conquering the hate and ignorance that is foundational to all bigotry.
The vandalism of the Emmett Till sign is a pathetic reminder of just how far we haven’t come. We can do better than that. We must.
…and that’s the view from The Balcony.